Pretty in the picture, not on the palate
Pretty in the picture, not on the palate
Edwin Goei

Panvimarn's Exploding Crabs

From the outside, Panvimarn doesn’t look like much. You’d guess it’s a mom-and-pop hole in the wall with sticky menus and chafing trays from which you can grab some takeout. But as every reviewer has noted since its much-heralded opening last year, it’s quite the opposite. This is a bona-fide Saturday-night destination—a groovy den with the good looks and interior design of a latter-day Vegas nightclub.

Cackles of conversation from its routinely packed house bounce off walls gilded in gold. At the entrance, an imposing statue of a chofa stares you down. The undulating sculpture, inspired by a mythical bird, stretches from floor to ceiling. And since this is a two-story restaurant, it’s a pretty tall ceiling.

Behind that, a trickling fountain spews fog. And everywhere around the main dining room and in the loft upstairs are Buddhas. Though the Enlightened One’s serene face blends in as part of the modern design scheme, the knowledge that an actual Thai family runs the place makes it all unironic, even reverential.

If I’ve gone on far too long in describing how the Long Beach eatery looks, it’s because I’m stalling on talking about the food. I wish I could say it was as good as the surroundings. I wish I could say chef Joseph Khemsap’s kitchen is as consistent as the bass beats of the pervasive electronica soundtrack. But as much as I was prepared to love Panvimarn, I didn’t.

Pad see ew, arguably the simplest stir-fried noodle in a Thai cook’s repertoire, was his most lamentably disappointing dish. It all stemmed from the Chinese broccoli, er, stems. The verdant stalks were essentially raw, their bitterness and coarseness yet to be cooked out. Also underdone were the rice noodles: the rubber-band-wide belts were as stubborn to chew on as, well, rubber bands.

An appetizer of baby ribs advertised as tender was not. Since the nugget-sized pieces seemed to have only been lightly deep-fried, it gave no time for the sinewy meat to surrender into softness. Instead, it required the determination and the bite force of Jaws to gnaw. Only the fatty parts were easily nibbled, and only a few morsels were fatty. The flavor—similar to the piercing sourness of traditional Thai sausage—would’ve been mouth-pleasing if my mouth weren’t already fatigued.

An appetizer sampler platter featuring the standard-bearers of wontons and egg rolls required significantly less effort to consume and was more successful. All that fried stuff (the fried shrimp encased in crispy cylindrical shells, bubbled wonton purses that spilled white-meat chicken, egg rolls filled with silver noodles and veggies) kowtowed to the greatness of the satays, sticks of skewered well-marinated, well-charred beef. Eaten after being given a slathering of creamy peanut sauce, they were a highlight of the platter—and of the night.

The razor-blade-sharp mango salad—a fiery tangle of red onions, chopped chiles and shredded tart green mangoes—rescued the fried sole cutlets from an existence that would’ve otherwise been indistinguishable from frozen Gorton’s fish sticks.

Panvimarn also did exceedingly well with its roster of fried rice. Every grain was rich and eggy, with the right amount of wetness and smoky wok-breath. Some even included fruits usually reserved for cake; raisins, pineapple, cranberries and dried apricots made guest appearances, mostly to good effect. One fried rice, however, had another unexpected visitor: a deep-fried soft-shell crab perched atop the mound like a grotesque garnish.

And it won’t be the last time you see the recently molted crustacean on a Panvimarn dish. Their unexplained fascination with the spindly critter continues in nearly every category of the menu, from a soup to a salad to a curry to that aforementioned fried rice.

Like Waldo in his signature red-striped shirt, the crab is done exactly the same way in every dish: deep-fried. His role ranged from the inspired (in the salad of grape tomatoes and apples) to the unnecessary (in the fried rice) to the ill-conceived (in the curry).

It’s in the curry that the crab fell victim to a miscalculation in both presentation and preparation. Two crispy crabs were torn in half and placed on opposite sides of the platter. In between the bifurcated carcasses, Panvimarn slopped on a pasty yellow-curry mush. The effect looked as though the crab had exploded, spewing its innards into the middle of the dish. Though the curry paste went well with rice, the first instinct we had was to save the crab pieces from the sogginess and the indignity of its plating.

We also did away with a cocktail umbrella and the wedge of lemon that came as garnish for a bowl of green-tea ice cream: two superfluous add-ons that baffled us but somehow personified how the restaurant seemed to sacrifice function for form, consistency for classiness.

Panvimarn Thai Cuisine, 4101 Bellflower Blvd., Ste C., Long Beach, (562) 425-2601; Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$30. Beer and wine.


This review appeared in print as "Exploding Crabs: And other misadventures at Panvimarn, Long Beach’s Saturday-night-destination restaurant."


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